Film Review – The Pale Blue Eye
The Pale Blue Eye
The Pale Blue Eye (2022) is the amalgamation of several elements that – on paper – shouldn’t work. It is a murder mystery, character study, odd couple story, revenge tale, romance, and biography. They group in a melting pot of conflicting tones, with the narrative barely managing to hold it all together. Yet, writer/director Scott Cooper (who adapts Louis Bayard’s novel) manages to stick the landing. While the entire piece requires strong leaps of faith and convenient plotting, it never falls into absurdity. It evokes its early 1800s setting with cold greys and blues – a snowcapped environment rife for devious characters with wicked intentions. Is this a great film? Not really, but it is an intriguing one. There wasn’t a moment where I wasn’t invested in where it was going.
A lot of that has to do with its central performance. Christian Bale has been an established actor for a long time, willing to play villains and heroes in big budget blockbusters to smaller independent projects. His inclusion here is reminiscent of his work in The Machinist (2004) and The Prestige (2006), with characters driven by their own personal demons. He plays August Landor, a renowned detective. Early on, we are given a list of Landor’s successful cases, establishing his reputation as a sleuth. However, after a string of personal tragedies, Landor has become a recluse and drunk. When West Point Military Academy calls upon him to solve the mysterious death of one of their cadets, Landor must put aside his struggles and focus on the task at hand.
Bale has a knack for disappearing into his roles, sometimes even changing his physical appearance to do so. With Landor, he sinks into the character internally. With a haggard face and sad eyes, Bale inhabits Landor as a man who has seen too much, but with the determination to push forward. One of Landor’s infamous abilities is to garner a confession with nothing but a piercing stare. Landor disrupts the natural order of West Point nearly as much as solving the case at hand. He not only questions the circumstances of the cadet’s death but the very institution they were a part of. The material might seem like an odd choice for Bale to take on, but as the character’s arc unfolds, we sense how much complexity there is for him to delve into.
Landor’s stoic nature contrasts with our second lead: none other than the famous poet Edgar Allan Poe. In real life, Poe did attend West Point to support himself financially. As played by Harry Melling (who looks remarkably like the man himself), Poe is an outcast amongst his peers. With his expanded vocabulary and dreams of literary greatness, Poe is subject of both admiration and ridicule from fellow cadets. Where Bale plays Landor with understatement, Melling gives Poe big gestures, extensive monologues, and a look that is slightly off kilter. The interaction between the two is awkward and funny, which might be the point. Bale and Melling have a strange chemistry that acts to their benefit. Poe is Landor’s gateway to the entire campus – getting to places and speaking to people he cannot. They make for a Sherlock/Watson dynamic. Their investigation will undoubtably become the inspiration for Poe’s future writing, at least in this universe.
Cooper’s direction (along with Masanobu Takayanagi‘s cinematography) creates West Point and the surrounding forest as relentlessly chilly. Much of the action takes place outdoors, and the production design amplifies the harsh conditions of the snow. The vast whiteness acts as a barrier, trapping our characters within a confined space. At night, scenes are lit by flickering candlelight, and the fog creates a spooky atmosphere not too unlike a monster movie. When Poe walks his way down a wooded path with only a lantern to guide his way, he looks like Ichabod Crane navigating through Sleepy Hollow before the Headless Horseman appears. Needless to say, this is not a pleasant place for anyone – even the indoor sets lack warmth. Everybody looks uncomfortable all the time. This is not a detriment. The visuals create an aura where everybody is potentially at risk.
The plot is a mixed bag of a traditional whodunnit, the day-to-day life of cadets, to the dangers of the occult. Some of this plays off with intensity – such as the manner of the central investigation. Not only was the cadet found hanging by a noose, but with their heart carved out as well. Ranking commanders order Landor to keep his findings quiet, so as not to tarnish West Point’s sparkling image. Soon enough, our protagonists are digging up clues involving cryptic notes to devil worship. A lot of this becomes needlessly complicated, and how things come to light get pretty hokey. But Cooper’s writing and direction makes up for these missteps with a devastating ending. The question isn’t about who the culprit is, but why they took such extreme actions. It does take a while to get to that revelation, but the strength of the final act will reward those patient enough to stick it out.
That’s not to say that Pale Blue Eye is a dreary experience. In fact, it’s the opposite. Several cast members steal the spotlight with their colorful performances. Toby Jones makes the most of his opportunity as Dr. Daniel Marquis, West Point’s resident physician. Jones gives Marquis a level of annoyance once Landor appears and upends all his work. When Marquis finishes his autopsy only for Landor to point out all the clues he has missed, the look on Jones’ face is nothing short of flabbergasted. Gillian Anderson makes an even bigger impact as Dr. Marquis’ wife. Although Anderson has a relatively short amount of screentime, she is one of the more memorable characters. With her larger-than-life personality, Anderson chews up scenery with glee.
The Pale Blue Eye is better than it has any right to be. With its jumps in logic and shifting tones, the film could have easily descended into farce. Thankfully, strong performances and a striking ending lift it beyond its shortcomings. There’s a gem here if viewers are willing to find it.